FYI Book Club: Fictionalized ‘Butterflies’ eases readers into grim reality of a dictator

Historical fiction likes to give readers the truth sprinkled with speculation, particularly with the personalities of historical figures.

Julia Alvarez takes a tumultuous time in the history of the Dominican Republic and instead of focusing on Gen. Rafael Leonidas Trujillo’s dictatorship, she shows readers the warm, loving relationships between the Mirabal sisters — Las Mariposas, or butterflies.

In 1960, three of the sisters, who were part of an underground revolutionary movement opposing Trujillo, were found near their wrecked jeep at the bottom of a 150-foot cliff. It is widely believed the Trujillo regime targeted them for execution, though at the time, their deaths were reported as an accident.

Alvarez’s “In the Time of the Butterflies,” the most recent selection of the FYI Book Club and the Lawrence Public Library’s Big Read, tells the story of how the sisters grew up to become inspiring figures of a political movement. Only one of them survived, DeDe, and her story anchors that of her sisters’ to the present.

FYI Book Club readers gathered at the Westport Library to talk about this rich, layered novel of girlhood, family, heroism and loss.

Hanna Cusick of Kansas City didn’t think she’d enjoy the novel as much as she did. “I thought it might be depressing since we know three of the sisters die at the end, but it made me chuckle. I could identify with their upbringing. Readers see the joy in their early lives, with family and friends and each other,” she said.

Lisa Timmons of Overland Park attended Alvarez’s recent talk in Lawrence. “Alvarez was one of 25 children. Her father had two wives, much like the father in the book. The sense of family and spirit of community Alvarez wrote about made readers understand what it was like to be a member of this family.”

“This story is so connected to the author,” said Gene Ann Newcomer of Prairie Village. “It’s a time she lived through, a time her father experienced first-hand. Alvarez had a large stake in the sisters’ story. I don’t think another author could have created this work. It could have become just another page in history, but the author makes us care so much about these people, showing us what it means to be a heroine.”

Denise Fletcher of Kansas City noted how carefully the reader is drawn into the sisters’ political lives. “Being a hero doesn’t mean you have to be a militant and on the offensive. We see the fears the Mirabal sisters face, their reluctance and passion. As readers, we’re pulled into it like the girls were and we’re almost in the dark as much as they are.”

Kimberly Murphy of Kearney wanted readers to remember DeDe, the surviving sister. “It was heroic of Dede to stay home and take care of the home and children and parents, while Minerva, Patria and Maria Teresa were gone.”

Edi Shifrin of Kansas City posed a question to the group: “How do you become a revolutionary? The women in this book didn’t seem to be the type who would join a rebellion. They didn’t have something terrible happen to them. They weren’t seeking revenge. They had ties to a family, which made it harder for them to give everything up.”

Cusick said, “Time and place have a lot to do with what happens to a person. These four girls and this family could exist in any community in America today. Only the nature of the call to action, the dynamics of the political situation, and the media are different now.”

Murphy turned the conversation to one of the author’s intentions in telling the story of Trujillo and Las Mariposas. “Alvarez said she wanted to introduce North American readers to this piece of Dominican Republic history. She’s a novelist, not a historian, and this is how she can tell the story best. She urges the reader to learn more.

“This book was my introduction to the political climate of the Dominican Republic. It piqued my interest and I learned about the Trujillo dictatorship. You could see what unified the countries and how they struggled. Her purpose wasn’t to teach us about history. Her purpose was to have us understand another culture’s history by reading fiction because it’s emotional.”

Fletcher summed up the best quality of historical fiction: “It reaches out to the reader and humanizes history. Alvarez created a story about people that encourages readers to seek out the facts.”

Kaite Mediatore Stover is the Kansas City Public Library’s director of reader’s services.

Join the club

The Kansas City Star and the Kansas City Public Library present a book-of-the-moment selection every few weeks and invite the community to read along. To participate in a book discussion led by the library’s Kaite Stover, email Look in FYI on April 15 for the introduction to the next selection, “Weapons of Math Destruction” by Cathy O’Neil.